by Tara Gulwell
Content warning: mentions death row and execution.
Arriving at Angola prison is a bit like realising the horror film you’ve been watching is actually a documentary. Suddenly a landscape that was far removed from my own experience was coming into focus before me as I arrived at the gates. I’ve had family members who were imprisoned or have gone through the criminal justice system, but this was Angola. This was the Alcatraz of the South, one of the most violent subjects of intense fascination in American mythology.
Although it’s official title is Louisiana State Penitentiary, to all those familiar with the prison it’s known as Angola, after the African country the slaves who populated the original plantation on the same site were from. It’s difficult to find a more striking example of the comparison between slavery and the prison industrial complex. Housing over 6000 prisoners and spread over on 18,000 acres of land, Angola is the largest maximum-security prison in the entire United States.
It’s difficult to find a more striking example of the comparison between slavery and the prison industrial complex.
When I first arrived (as part of a class trip), we went through the gift shop and museum that is in front of the gatehouse. Inside the shop you could buy mementos such as license plates, ashtrays, and even t-shirts that read “Angola: Gated Community.” The museum displayed items such as ‘Gruesome Gertie’, the previously-used execution chair, and artifacts from memorable prison breaks and murders.
After that charade, we were taken into the prison itself. We first visited some training hangers where men were learning mechanical skills. These training facilities seemed to be the shining glory of the tour. They were intended to show visitors the extent of reform Angola had undergone – reform meant to transform the prison from a violent slavery-like system to a progressive, education-based process. But despite the blatant attempt of our officer guide to push rose-tinted glasses onto us, the training programs were actually quite impressive.
I met John, a lifer who was training short-sentence prisoners in a nationally recognised mechanics qualification, who when asked what was the one message we could give to ‘the outside world’ from meeting him and visiting the prison, said “employers need to know that the guys graduating from this program are fully trained and have hands-on experience… they can give back to the community.”
Leaving the hangers to travel around the prison to various different camps, all that you can see for acres and acres is ploughed land. Looking at the rows upon rows in the vast fields was painful, realising how much back-breaking work had been put into the land by those imprisoned here. This was the same land worked on by slaves held at Angola.
After riding the bus around the site for some time (yes, it’s that big), we arrived at the final part of our tour: death row. Before getting off the bus, we were warned by the officer escorting us not to ask about the heating. Strange I know, but the state are currently in a court case concerning inhumane temperatures the cells on death row were being kept at, and not able to discuss it with us. Going into the death row facility felt clinical, even modern. It had a reception, clean, bright hall ways until you get to where the death row inmates are housed. When you actually enter the cell areas, you travel down a corridor with visiting rooms either side of you until you get to a large circular room, with corridors of cells branching off of this one central room. The whole facility was incredibly small. I didn’t get to speak to any of the inmates, we were rushed through pretty quickly. Then we reached the execution chamber.
Going into the death row facility felt clinical, even modern in a way.
It was pretty shocking that the prison let visitors into the chamber (which is really only a small room), but it is an experience I’ll never forget. The gurney was the traumatic epicentre of the room, originally supposed to be built by inmates themselves, until they realised what they were constructing and refused. To my relief the officer informed me that execution-states in America today are currently having issues actually carrying out the executions, because companies which sold the chemicals used to make the lethal injection were refusing to sell once they realised what their products were being used for.
Ranging from the final meal to the individual stages of the execution itself, the whole process was carried out with efficiency, closed to the cameras of the world, those executed becoming even more invisible than they been while imprisoned.
Angela Davis calls prisons ‘invisible places’, and visiting Angola made me realise why. Most prisons are located far away from urban hubs and population-dense areas. They are removed from our sense of place, and the prisoners themselves are removed from our sense of humanity. If you’re lucky enough not to encounter the criminal justice system, particularly in Louisiana which carries some of the harshest sentencing laws in the country, prisoners seem separate from your experience of citizenship. They are bad people who are now in another place.
Angela Davis calls prisons ‘invisible places’, and visiting Angola made me realise why.
America’s criminal justice system – and increasingly the UK’s – is effectively run blindly, with little input from the prisoners or the general public as to how it should work. Discussions about how we run our prisons are critically missing from political and public discourse when they bring up some of the key questions we as societies constantly ask ourselves: how do we balance justice and personal liberty? Is our system functioning on blind justice or does it exhibit prejudices? How do we treat each other based on established morals? What even are morals and laws and how do they become established? How are laws enforced? Do we favour retributive or restorative justice?
The answers to these questions only become more tangible once prisons become visible. Once those imprisoned regain humanity in our psyches can we begin the work of understanding a system that shapes our entire society.